May 30, 2008

The Tree and the Singularity

(via Digital Urban)

Posted by Anders3 at 12:34 PM | Comments (0)

Topping Up

On CNE I comment about the debate about "topping up" NHS treatment to get treatments not covered. The most interesting thing about the BMJ discussion was that the anti-topup debater was so willing to level down. Normally that is a position people discussing ethics do not wish to take, unless they are radically egalitarian.

Posted by Anders3 at 11:58 AM | Comments (0)

May 29, 2008

Anti-Posthuman Hollywood Bias

Autodevil IIIo9 makes a worthwhile call: Posthumans, Rise Up And Destroy Hollywood!

Why is nearly every depiction of enhanced humans in film deeply negative? The above post catalogues the anti-mutant, anti-cyborg, anti-hybrid and anti-genetic engineering bias of Hollywood (while noting that sf books and comics are far less biased - it is not just a "makes good story bias").

I don't think one can just blame this on liberal bias; the denigration of the posthuman seems to be based on rather bioconservative views that are not tied to a left-right scale. Rather, they deal with perceived transgressions against purity/sanctity, one of the five psychological foundations of morality in Jonathan Haidt's system (the others are
authority/respect, ingroup/loyalty, harm/care, fairness/justice - the violation or following of these tend to be what drives the rest of the plot). Such a bioconservative view is based on the idea of a given natural order, and transgressions against it are inherently immoral.

Of course, buying into this idea means that one also accepts a worldview that has a fixed moral order that conforms at the very least to our (perceived) biology, and quite often a lot of other unstated baggage of who and what is pure, natural and authentic and what is impure, unnatural and artificial. This can be done from a conservative religious perspective or a conservative political one, but just as well from a leftist perspective - just read the claims of purity and ethical goodness on the labelling of any organic product, claimed to be free from transgressive genetics and the forces of modernity.

Cherishing a complex human nature does not mean one has to subscribe to such hierarchical or purist views. But it is much simpler to cleave to the over-simplified view of how the world works than take responsibility not just for one's actions but for attempting to decide what elements and relations in human nature are good and bad. Being a self-creating posthuman means making many difficult judgements with ill-defined consequences. People who like clarity and certainty more than autonomy and empirical experimentation would hence be disposed to a bioconservative view.

On a lighter note, I have just discovered some fun transhumanist themes in the music propaganda of Dr. Steel. Fibonacci is about von Neumann replicators and has a catchy chorus. I guess the theme of Singularity is pretty obvious ("zeros and ones, the curves' begun//nanotechnology transcending biology"). It is an odd fusion of hiphop and mad scientist humor/aesthetics. I may not be a toy soldier, but that is just because I want to take over the world first.

Posted by Anders3 at 02:06 AM | Comments (0)

May 26, 2008

Why Brain Boosting is not Cheating

The Benefits of CoffeeThe James Martin 21st Century School - Blog - : Brain-boosting drugs - just another headache for policymakers? is a response from me and some other colleauges here to the recent report from the Academy of Medical Sciences about cognition enhancement. To sum up, we generally do not agree with Les Iversen that academic use of enhancement is cheating, and we think it would be worthwhile to research more into cognition enhancement per se, rather than beat about the bush and claim the drugs are just intended as therapy for ADHD or age related memory impairment.

It is interesting to note that people do not seem to think that different access to strong coffee or individual variation in caffeine tolerance produce any unfair advantage. Maybe it is just the lack of experience with the drugs that makes people think they provide a super-advantage, while they at best only gives a medium one.

There was also a opinion piece in The Economist (May 22nd 2008) about the issue, making almost the same points. It also brings up the important point that cognition enhancement is very much in line with what we are already trying to achieve with espressos, ginseng and brain-training on the Nintendo.

Posted by Anders3 at 07:35 PM | Comments (0)

May 23, 2008

Minarchist Measles Prevention?

SnakelampOn Ethical Perspectives on the News I write about Preventing Polka-Dot Problems: Should Measles Vaccination be Compulsory?

I think one can make a fairly strong argument that even in a libertarian minarchist state vaccination should be tax supported: there is no fundamental difference between protecting citizens from criminals, wild animals or pathogens. And there might even be (if one buys Nozick's arguments about compensation to the John Wayne types who are forced to use the state protection) a case for making it mandatory. On the other hand, the mandatoriness only seem to work if there is no herd immunity. Giving compensation seems to be an universally acceptable approach to break the (rather mild) public good situation for vaccinations.

The frightening thing is that vaccination is one of the real success stories of public health, yet it was a victim of its own success and has had a surprisingly hard time countering dangerous nonsense. Not just the MMR-autism claim, but (often self-serving) nonsense about how diet, alternative medicine or even being infected is better for you. If something as effective and well documented as this has trouble, what about the rest of science/evidence-based medicine - or evidence-based anything? Still, we should not despair: Jenner succeeded despite fairly "modern"-sounding fears of species mixture.

Posted by Anders3 at 10:51 PM | Comments (0)

How stupid can students and examiners be assumed to be?

We are all individuals...Exam papers had answers on back - in a music GCSE exam where the students were to identify the composers of different pieces of music the copyright information on the back clearly identified the pieces.

But the real sidesplitter is this comment from the exam board:

"It is unlikely that any of the 12,000 students sitting the examination would have recognised the value of the information in the copyright statement and subsequently used it."

This is amazing, given that it was students who pointed out the problem in the first place.

Of course, the usual suspects immediately claim that this shows that private examination boards cannot be trusted. But given that the same type of people would likely be employed by a central government examination board, it just seems that it would scale up the occasional disasters to encompass all students and not just a subset. As the MTAS fiasco amply demonstrated, this is not just hypothetical, it is a very serious risk. Just like in computer security avoiding a monoculture of systems at least prevents disasters from being 100%.

Posted by Anders3 at 11:12 AM | Comments (0)

May 21, 2008

More Moral than Most is one of my favorite blogs in Swedish. It looks at society and tries to explain why people act as they do - often from an innovative angle.

This post discusses why why people opposed to organ trade and child employment are not evil or coldhearted, despite appearances. They are just projecting their feelings, trying to keep the unpleasant out by boycotting and banning it.

While largely meant as a satire, I think there is some truth to it. Many people seem much more eager to ban things than actually get rid of complex, troubling causes (think of prostitution, drugs, internet piracy) - not just because a ban is a simple option but because it allows a distancing from whatever it is. If we just ban organ trade the organ scarcity problem will go away - if not from reality, at least from our personal agenda. Trying to deal with the problem is going to give most people far too much anguish: actually figuring out how to give poor children in poor countries a good life is messy, will involve compromising moral positions, doing nasty realpolitik and even (shudder) thinking about economics. Much easier to organize boycotts in the west instead, allowing oneself to signal that one is more moral than most.

Posted by Anders3 at 02:57 PM | Comments (0)

May 20, 2008

The Three Fundamental Forces of Nature

The building blocks of matter[hep-ph/0604027] A Universe Without Weak Interactions (Roni Harnik, Graham D. Kribs, Gilad Perez, Physical Review D, 74, 035006, 2006) is a nice piece of worldbuilding. It is also fun to hear an abstract start: "A universe without weak interactions is constructed that undergoes big-bang nucleosynthesis, matter domination, structure formation, and star formation." It is unfortunately a purely theoretical paper with no experimental predictions in principle; an experimental construction of a physical universe would make a really cool paper.

Anyway, the point is mainly to demonstrate that one can tweak the standard cosmological models to leave out all of the weak nuclear force and still get what looks like a habitable universe. This means that anthropic arguments likely cannot set fine-tuning in the weak domain: our existence doesn't imply that we have to have a weak nuclear force.

Their weakless universe just has electrons, up, down and strange quarks (with antiparticles), no neutrinos, other leptons or heavy quarks. Neutrons and the Λ0 particle are stable. A lot more isotopes are stable, especially very neutron-rich isotopes. Much of the paper deals with tweaking the initial abundances of quarks and photons to get enough hydrogen (deuterium) for stars. The heaviest naturally occuring element would be Strontium 76 (Molybdenium 84 is also stable but cannot be manufactured in normal star processes). Stars mainly burn deuterium into helium 4, catalyzed by protons. Stars are about a hundred times less massive and less luminious, but last as long as our stars. Supernovae "fizzle" because the core cannot rapidly cool by emitting neutrinos, making heavy stars end up as black holes or neutron-proton stars without blowing off their atmosphere. Accretion supernovae still work, and enrich the interstellar medium with heavy elements.

All in all, a pretty cool piece of worldbuilding. My biggest problem with it is that in the absence of slow radioactive decay inside planets they will lose plate tectonics rapidly. This would prevent the carbon-silicon cycle and make planetary atmospheres too low in carbon dioxide to maintain a greenhouse effect. This is likely not an insurmountable problem for the emergence and persistence of life, but the vast majority of terrestrial planets will likely be frozen out.

Posted by Anders3 at 10:27 AM | Comments (0)

May 19, 2008

Evolution is Dead, Long Live Evolution!

Tarsius bancanusJohn Harris defends enhancement in the Times: Who's afraid of a synthetic human?. I'm generally just nodding in agreement. It is largely a version of his Oxford talk last week.

One interesting point is the difference between natural evolution and enhancement evolution. In the first, fitness is determined by a natural environment and selection is done through differential reproduction rates - often by the unfit simply being killed of by the environment. Diversity is generated through random, simple mutations. In enhancement evolution fitness becomes dominated by the desires and projects of intelligent beings, and selection (if it occurs) happens prenatally (e.g. through PGD) - instead the "mutations" are no longer random and can be very complex.

This means that fully mature enhancement evolution is much more humane, in that fewer lives have to be sacrificed in the selection step. The ends may still be problematic, but even if natural evolution were for some reason aiming at maximum happiness it would achieve that goal by killing a large number of unsuccessful individuals. Natural evolution is not immoral since there is no moral agent responsible for it, but it is a quite painful process. Enhancement evolution is subject to moral consideration since the beings doing it are moral beings; hence it is possible to have "moral evolution" in the sense that it aims at good goals and achieves them using good means.

Enhancement evolution also extends the environment that is acting on the genome beyond the traditional physical and ecological environment to an environment including culture, economy and technology. Natural evolution can only react to the surface aspects of this: changing butterfly colouration as a response to pollution or evolving antibiotic resistance is reactive. Enhancement evolution can be proactive: if we know that the climate is going to get hotter, colder, more radioactive or filled with nanobots we can engineer that consideration into other organisms before it happens. By having intelligence involved in the evolutionary process it does not just become quasi-Lamarkian but it even gains foresight. Sure, limited and fallible foresight, but infinitely more than natural evolution could ever produce.

Right now we are in a slow transition from natural to enhancement evolution. We have removed many of the big selection pressures and made reproductive fitness rather independent of genetic fitness (as it would have been in our environment of evolutionary adaptedness). We are doing minor selection (the most dramatic is probably current eugenic programs against some genetic diseases) and will likely be doing PGD real soon now.

Transgenic activity is happening among a handful of species - but we have already done enhancement evolution for millennia across plants and animals. The real shift happens when the human-determined selection/fitness processes become more significant than natural selection/fitness processes (the targeted mutation ability just makes possible jumps more radical and starts allowing non-Darwinian evolution). That might already be close to happening today among humans given that we have reduced external selection pressures so much. It just takes a little bit more genetic testing and counselling and we will already be evolving according to enhancement evolution rather than natural evolution.

(Another version of this post, with some further thinking, has been added to Ethics in the News)

Posted by Anders3 at 02:51 PM | Comments (0)

May 17, 2008

How anti-gambling laws stifle science

Make moneyScience has an interesting policy forum article: The Promise of Prediction Markets -- Arrow et al. 320 (5878): 877 -- Science. It deals with prediction markets, the use of markets to forecast future events. Prediction markets have shown great promise, both for predicting elections (c.f. Iowa Electronic Markets) and for internal use in companies to predict sales revenues, product launch timing and software quality. However, the article notes that current US laws against gambling, especially internet gambling, seriously limits the possibility of setting up prediction markets.

The authors argue that there is a need to clarify the circumstances where prediction markets are legal. In particular the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) should establish safe-harbor rules for at least some small-stakes markets such as those run by research institutions, government agencies and internal prediction markets of private businesses and non-profit organisations.

It is a bit ironic that the current rules block the only kind of gambling that actually has positive externalities.

Posted by Anders3 at 06:46 PM | Comments (0)

May 16, 2008

Fluid Intelligence is Stretchable

WaterImproving fluid intelligence with training on working memory (Jaeggi et al. 105 (19): 6829 PNAS) presents a nice result: by running a training program for working memory fluid intelligence (as measured by standard tests) can be increased. The effect increases with the length of training, it works both for high and low performers, and the training is not on problems (in this case a version of the n-back task) similar to fluid intelligence tests (usually Raven's matrices).

This is not the first demonstration that it can be done. Torkel Klingberg, also working with computer training of working memory, demonstrated an improvement of intelligence in children with ADHD a while ago. See Training of Working Memory in Children With ADHD (Torkel Klingberg, Hans Forssberg, and Helena Westerberg, Journal of Clinical and Experimental Neuropsychology, 2002, Vol. 24, No. 6, pp. 781-791) and Computerized Training of Working Memory in Children With ADHD—A Randomized, Controlled Trial (Klingberg et al. J Am Acad Child Adolesc. Psychiatry, 44:2, feb 2005). Anecdotally his program appear to have worked in healthy people too. According to him the key trick is to make the training adaptive: the difficulty of the working memory task has to increase as people get better, or there will be no improvement. There has been some discussion about what is "really" improved, but the effects on other domains suggest that whatever it is it is useful.

Of course, we have not yet any strong evidence that this training has beneficial effects in real life situations, but that ought to be searched for once the basic effect has been replicated a bit better.

Makes me want to write a training applet to start optimizing my working memory.

Posted by Anders3 at 05:30 PM | Comments (0)

A lie is an abomination unto the Lord, and a very present help in trouble

PhonepoleToday at Ethical Perspectives on the News I blog about A Pipeline to Truth? Fighting Absenteeism with Voice Analysis - should companies use voice stress analysis when people call in sick to catch the people who lie?

Overall, the field of voice stress analysis appears to be just as messy and prone to overblown claims as polygraphs and other deceit detection methods. But people like to believe they work, and this makes people behave more truthfully when they erronously think they will be found out. So the real ethical problem is that catching truants is based less on finding out whether the employees lie, as lying to the employees.

Of course, one can always turn things around and run voice stress analysis on one's employer. Given that it is likely that employers also suffer from the bogus pipeline effect, it might force them to be truthful - or regard their employee as dangerous.

Posted by Anders3 at 01:58 PM | Comments (0)

May 14, 2008

Biopolitical Credo

Shadow of the genePractical Ethics: Looking for Biopolitical Trouble and CNE Health: Man is a Biopolitical Animal are my comments on the discussions caused by the Cornell genetically modified human embryo (a great example of how something only becomes news when the news media decide it is news).

My point is simply that we ought to aim at a deeper biopolitical debate rather than messing about with thin surface issues that are mere stand-ins for real core values. Instead of arguments akin to "how many angels on can dance on the head of a pin" about when embryos become ensouled (see Ronald Baileys' amusing report on it) we should admit that the real stakes is defining what it means to be a human and try to handle that as a biopolitical debate.

See below for my biopolitical credo.

As I see it, humans are biomass that happens to have acquired a few interesting and important traits. Our actions are not just controlled by innate and learned behaviours, but also behaviours we deduce from fairly general cognitive processes that can predict cause and effect a decent amount of steps, as well as beliefs that are amenable to change due to experience, internally generated ideas and information from other humans. Our prefrontal cortex enables Kant-style morality. Or rather, an approximation of it bounded by a lot of resource constraints and evolved biases - but it is still pretty impressive.

That we are conscious is in my opinion less important; I tend towards the panpsychist position at least on Wednesdays. Similarly our emotional life, for all its delights and horrors, might be what we ought to expect for a large animal in a terrestrial environment (I thinkRobert J. Sawyer has a good argument at the end of his essay).

We are also highly contingent creatures: we have a lot of degrees of freedom in our minds. We need a long childhood just to set some of these degrees, and given their number, the environmental experience and the nonlinear interactions between them each human become very individual. Not just in the sense that the bits in our heads are different from person to person, but that overall behaviour patterns show a great deal of variation. We emerge from genes, environment and individual choices (some of which are doubtless entirely randomly caused, others emergent results of all the previous development) in a way that is unpredictable and unrepeatable. Hence the loss of a human is great loss, we will never get a repetition.

However, tinkering with embryos does not affect persons: we only become these highly contingent moral subjects as we develop, not when we are just genetics and epigenetics. Hence there is no problem per se with designing children, unless it manages to hurt the eventual person. In fact, as the above account suggests, there is a lot of aspects of our minds and bodies that are not in our best interests (everything from evolved cognitive biases to ageing) and it might be both moral or even obligatory to fix.

Since I do not see any particular value in the given but much potential value of increasing diversity and complexity, expanding human potential through both embryonic and adult enhancements/extensions is a good thing. If I can increase my rational abilities, personal uniqueness or happiness by enhancing myself, I should do it. We should encourage each other to self-actualize in constructive ways, and some of these will be biotechnological.

This requires rights such as morphological freedom since our individual life projects can be quite different and we need freedom both to modify ourselves and to say no to modifications desired by others. I generally regard top-down solutions for individual human lives as risky, suffering from information problems and having a bad track record (yet popular among humans due to what I think is a cognitive bias to overvalue rational design and deference to authority), so I prefer bottom-up approaches where people locally decide on what to do or which institutions to join. Only when there is convincing and compelling reasons to think this will go seriously wrong should centralized plans be enforced - and in those cases any reductions in freedoms and rights must be balanced by corresponding effective transparency and accountability in the agencies.

I will cooperate with other people who accept similar principles as these ones, who do not seek to coerce me and seek peaceful resolution to conflicts of interests. Together we will work against those who wish to infringe on our various liberties, regardless of whether they think they are doing us a service.

Posted by Anders3 at 06:20 PM | Comments (0)

Regulating Future Science

What science is forThis monday I attended the 21st Century School's Distinguished Public Lecture where John Sulston, John Harris and Richard Dawkins discussed what science is for. Beside the core discussion, where Harris was pretty utilitarian and Sulston emphasised the non-instrumental value of exploration, it was interesting to see that all three speakers (as well as a few distinguished members of the audience) all held a posthuman future as a possible or even likely possibility. Hence much of the discussion focused on the potential drawbacks and how to regulate science. The text below is my comment on the institute blog.

Regulation, to be effective, requires recognition that a field requires regulation (which in turn implies recognizing the field and some reasons for regulation) and an understanding of how it would likely affect the field. This can in general not be done a priori. We do not know beforehand what a new technology will produce or how it will be (mis)used, we can only reason from prior experience, which is of limited use. Before a field has developed far enough for us to amass some experience about how it works, what can be done, what can go wrong and how people apply it regulation will be premature and likely be ineffective (e.g. intellectual property regulation on the Internet) and/or have unintended effects (such as strangling a desirable emerging technology in red tape).

Regulating synthetic biology cannot be done before we have synthetic biology, except in attempts to prevent the whole field from emerging. Regulating human enhancement cannot be done without some experience with it; current regulation are either local to particular situations of little general applicability (doping in sports, military drug use) or due to older regulations not directly intended to regulate it (medical regulations). There is also a lack of recognition of the commonalities of enhancement from drugs, genetic interventions, education and information technology: if enhancement itself is worth regulating all such activities should be regulated together. This seems unlikely to happen, and a more likely approach would be local regulations for different kinds of enhancements .

Such local regulation would be unlikely to prevent or control the emergence of better-than-human-beings, since they can emerge from many research directions, possibly as a surprise and not necessarily as a recognized *kind* of being. We already have entities such as the Google search engine and multinational corporations that exhibit superhuman capabilities without being a being. It might even be unwise to attempt to design such beings according to a strict top-down plan, since we want to allow the emergence of new benefits unknowable for lesser minds such as ours.

Hence thinking in terms of regulation as control is likely to be mistaken: we are very unlikely to be able to control our "mind children". Regulation as influence on the other hand is feasible: by being clear on what values we want to promote (such as curiosity, the good life, freedom, safety etc.), keeping an eye on what is actually going on and being developed, and creating regulations and incitements that promote them in general we have a higher chance of influencing future developments in a beneficial way.

Posted by Anders3 at 01:50 PM | Comments (0)

May 09, 2008

Yummy Ghrelin

Self devouringPractical Ethics: Hunger is the best spice is a little essay on the ethics of adding the hunger-hormone ghrelin (or something similar) to food. In an amazing jump from a research paper to science "reality" Io9 suggests that it is already being used as an additive. I argue that there is no need for it, since bright colours, salt, sugar, fat and glutamate already heighten our appetite enough in a low-tech, legal way.

I'm much more worried about tinkering with desire itself than with appetite. Vinge's "Focus" in A Deepness in the Sky show some of the really dangerous and tempting possibilities: imagine being able to program yourself to want what you want to want. Even if nobody else were given the keys to your desire system there are some pretty frightening failure modes - and potential rewards such as becoming as moral or focused as you really want to be.

In the meantime, I wonder if there exist any ghrelin secretagogues in chocolate.

Posted by Anders3 at 05:50 PM | Comments (0)

May 03, 2008

Cash for Health: a Specific Tool

Public healthI blogged both on Ethics in the News and CNE Health about the new World Bank project to try paying people for not getting AIDS - it is an interesting combination of health, economics and ethics.

It looks like it could work; whether it is cost-effective we have to wait and see. I'm mostly worried that we might not get that data. Outside groups are likely to get into moral panic mode since the project touches on paying people for sacred values such as health and sexual behavior - that can easily cause Tetlockian moral outrage. But the whole idea of "reverse prostitution" is a clever noncoercive reversal of the cognitive biases that make undersupply their own health.

At the same time it does not scale to any situation. As a friend exclaimed, it discriminates against the already sick who cannot get any extra money. The goal here is of course just to change the habits of healthy people. Maybe some kind of bonus system could be envisioned that rewarded safe sex habits among infected people, but checking them objectively and efficiently would be hard.

Moving the same system to other conditions or the west may be hard: it is one thing to pay people for avoiding an infectious disease that is relatively easy to avoid, another thing to pay people for lifestyle illnesses/conditions such as obesity. Given natural variation in vulnerability and the chances to do something about them the rewards would fall more unevenly: in the west rewarding people for not getting fat would tend to reward well-educated middle class people. Still, adding an incentive for regular health checkups might be a good idea. If it was done as a tax break it would favor the well-off and long-term discounting, but with a cash reward it would promote checkups among the less well-off and more short-term thinking people. Whether the information from the checkup would have any useful health effect is another matter, of course.

Posted by Anders3 at 10:54 AM | Comments (0)